originally published December 2, 2012
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think this would make a full article. What is a one-hit wonder? Quick answer: an artist or band who scored only one hit in either the Top-40 or the Top-100, depending on your criteria. Simple, right? So let’s look at a big list that will no doubt include Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Janis Joplin (“Me And Bobby McGee” was her sole Top-40 appearance) and move on to Day 338.
But wait… one-hit wonder talk is often handled by music geeks. Music geeks don’t go for simple, straightforward definitions. To wit:
Some bands had a single hit in the US and a totally different single hit in the UK. British group After The Fire nailed a hit at home with their debut single, “One Rule For You” in 1979. They broke in the US with their English version of “Der Komissar” four years later. So they aren’t one-hit wonders, it just seems that way.
Prohibited from sitting at the table of one-hit wonders are the artists who had one hit on their own but plenty with a group, like Steely Dan’s Donald Fagan (“I.G.Y.” from his first solo album), or Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger (that shitty song from the Spider-Man soundtrack). Likewise, Derek & The Dominoes isn’t a one-hit wonder for “Layla” because it’s considered part of Eric Clapton’s cannon of work.
Okay, that’s easy enough. What other little clauses could there be?
Right, the regional rule. Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” was their lone US hit, while in their native England they had a much better run. The same can be said for the Verve, James Blunt, and if you can believe it, Right Said Fred.
German 1980’s one-hitters Falco (“Rock Me Amadeus”) and Nena (“99 Luftballoons”) were huge in their homeland. For whatever reason, Australia’s Air Supply had only one UK hit and about six dozen on this side of the Atlantic. On the flip-side, American Isaac Hayes only had one British Top-40 hit, and it was “Chocolate Salty Balls” from the South Park soundtrack, not the “Theme From Shaft”. These are regional one-hit wonders, so… sorta-one-hit wonders, but not really.
Okay, so these are the few exceptions to the rule. Are the music geeks satisfied? Of course not.
Artists with immense album or ticket sales don’t count – Garth Brooks’ only Top-40 hit was with that ‘Chris Gaines’ schtick, but he is not a one-hit wonder. Neither are artists like KoRn or Muse who have had hits on other charts. Oh, and artists like Beck, The White Stripes or Randy Newman don’t count, despite only notching a single Top-40 hit. They’re too influential, considered to be too important in the realm of their craft to warrant such a lowly designation.
Also, artists who have been welcomed into the cultural fold as among the uber-influential, either by fans or other musicians, get a pass. This means Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” and the aforementioned Janis Joplin hit will not keep them grounded at the one-hit terminal. Same goes for Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Rush, Devo, Iggy Pop, the Grateful Dead, and Bo Diddley.
Okay, so we’ve ruled out the rock elite, the foreigners, and the solo projects of successful band members. If we keep going, we’re going to rule out every song from the one-hit wonder list this side of Katrina & The Waves.
Except that Katrina & The Waves is also scratched. Sure, “Walking On Sunshine” probably appears on every 80’s compilation ever, and they never had another Top-40 hit, right? Wrong – their winning song from the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest (previously reviewed right here) was an even bigger hit in the UK, hitting #3 on the charts. Sometimes artists seem like they only had one hit, because their other hits were enjoyed for a week or two then collectively forgotten by everyone.
Animotion, whose 1985 hit “Obsession” received massive airplay, had another hit four years later, once every founding member of the group had left and been replaced. “Room To Move” from the soundtrack to My Stepmother Is An Alien – probably the most forgettable movie in Dan Aykroyd’s illustrious career – hit #19 on the US charts in 1989.
A lot of supposed one-hit wonders actually had other hits that no one remembers:
- The Archies (“Sugar Sugar”) had three other songs crack the Top-40, but you’ll never hear them on oldies radio.
- Question Mark & The Mysterians (“96 Tears”) had a follow-up (“I Need Somebody”) that hit #22.
- A-Ha (“Take On Me”), may have one of the most beloved hits of the 80s, but it wasn’t their only one; “The Sun Always Shines On TV” charted higher in the UK and reached #20 on the American Billboard chart. I could strain my memory all night and not remember a single note from this song.
So to establish an act as a one-hit wonder, we’d have to dig a little. Also, we might have to wait a little.
Golden Earring broke the top 20 in 1973 with “Radar Love”, and might have been written off as a one-hit wonder until “Twilight Zone” hit #10 nine years later. Until an artist is dead or retired, you just never know if they’ll strike gold one more time.
There are other omissions of course – no one considers Steve Martin a one-hit wonder, though he did have a single song (“King Tut”) crack the Top-40. Pratt & McClain and Joey Scarbury are often considered no-hit artists, despite each having launched a hit onto the charts. This is because their hits (“Happy Days” and “Believe It Or Not” – the theme from The Greatest American Hero) were TV themes that happened to score as singles.
So what’s left? Wikipedia provides a smattering of one-hit wonders which still qualify. Some are unforgettably good (Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”), some are irrefutably bad (Gerardo’s “Rico Suave”), and others are… well, they’re Los del Rio singing “Macarena”.
Some artists should be grateful to have scored a single hit (I’m looking at you, Vanilla Ice, Billy Ray Cyrus and the Baha Men), some deserved a lot more acclaim than they got (Bobby freakin’ McFerrin – I don’t care if you hate his one hit, he is awesome), and others should be freed from the shackles of the one-hit label (it took me a single click to learn that The Knack had a top-20 follow-up to “My Sharona”).
So maybe the music geeks have spoiled it for everybody. To call an artist a one-hit wonder now takes research and international fact-checking. It’s not really a negative label – I’m sure artists like Musical Youth and Chumbawumba were happy for their brief moment of fame. Even if it’s only one track that keeps them immortal, that’s one more than most. One more than me.
So far. Just wait, when I put this entire site to music, I plan on owning the charts, even more than the Buggles did.